Is Faith Meritorious?

Let it never be said that I do not agree with a Calvinist when he’s right. In 1976 Pastor John Piper wrote the article below and I could not agree more with him on this point…

“The question I am trying to answer is this: If faith is the sine qua non of being saved (Ephesians 2:8; Acts 16:31; Romans 5:1), then is it proper to speak of faith as meriting salvation? Does one earn salvation by believing in Jesus?

First, note that this is not a serious question for the universalist. For him, the call to faith is the call to all people to recognize that they have already been justified and are being and will be saved. Nothing crucial hangs on the act of faith. But I am not working with the universalist assumption, but rather with the assumption that “we are justified by faith” (Romans 5:1) and without faith we are not saved and not justified.

In other words, I am assuming that the attitude of the heart and mind which we call faith is just as necessary to the salvation of the individual as the death and resurrection of Christ are, because it is that without which we will not be saved. Does this insistence that our faith is as necessary as Christ’s death for our salvation mean that our faith merits salvation?

How we answer this question depends on our use of the terms involved. The key terms are “merit” and “faith.” As the term is normally used, “to merit” (or “to deserve”) something good from somebody means to perform some act or manifest some quality which has enough value to another person that it morally obligates him to reward it.

Illustration 1 – The Guilty Convict

What faith involves and whether it “merits” salvation may be shown by two illustrations. First, picture yourself as a murderer condemned to death and awaiting execution. You are guilty and everyone knows it. You deserve to die. Then you get a letter from the President of the United States which says that he has, by his sovereign power, decided to remit your sentence and let you go free.

The reason he gives for this decision is not that any new evidence has turned up, but rather he simply wants to demonstrate to everyone his power in this declaration of mercy and to transform your disregard for his laws into humble adoration of his merciful sovereignty. He calls your attention to his seal on the letter and instructs you to simply show it to the warden, who will then let you go free—no questions asked.

So you call the guard, show him the letter and get a hearing with the warden. As you enter the warden’s office, you smell the fresh air of life and liberty blowing in his window and you see the tops of trees and a kite flying beyond the wall. You hand him the letter and he reads it. Without a query he orders the guard to get your things. As you leave the gates you turn to look at the massive prison and the row of windows where you had been an hour before. Then you start running and jumping and shouting and laughing and telling everyone, “The President let me out! The President let me out!”

Illustration 2 – The Poor Laborer

In the second illustration, picture yourself as a poor unskilled laborer who barely can scrape enough together to feed your wife and three children. One day you get in the mail a letter from a famous wealthy philanthropist. The letter says that if you will bring it to his lawyer, the lawyer will pay you a hundred thousand dollars—no strings attached. The reason he gives is simply that he enjoys giving to the poor.

There is no indication why he sent the letter to you and not to another. You need only go pick up the money with the letter. So you follow his instructions and go. Entering the lawyer’s office, you hand him the letter. He says he has been expecting you, writes the check and bids you farewell.

The question that these two stories raise is whether you, in either situation, could properly speak of “meriting” freedom or wealth? You did have to meet a condition: The sine qua non of freedom and wealth was to present the letters from the President and the philanthropist. But to use our definition of merit, was your presenting of the letters an act so valuable to the President or to the philanthropist that they were thus obligated to reward you?

Why Faith is not Meritorious

I think the answer is clearly no. Only one thing obligated the President and the philanthropist—their own honor. Insofar as they were committed to maintaining their own honor, it was morally impossible for them to refuse the favor they had promised. In other words, there was something so valuable to them that they were obligated to “reward” it, namely, their own good name.

Faith is symbolized by the response of the prisoner and the poor man. On what basis could they with any assurance lay claim to the promise of freedom and wealth? No use of the terms “merit” or “deserve” in our ordinary experience would justify the prisoner’s saying to the warden, “I deserve (or merit) freedom because I brought you this letter.” Nor could he properly say, “My act of bringing you this letter is an act so valuable to the President that he is therefore obligated to free me.” That statement completely contradicts the dynamics of this situation.

The prisoner may say one thing: “Our merciful President has sent me a letter of remittance and I believe that his faithfulness to his word and his commitment to his own honor is so great that in spite of my guilt he will certainly do what he has said.”

Faith is the one human act which morally obligates another person without calling attention to the other person’s honor. Faith in God’s promise obligates him to save the believer not because the quality of faith is meritorious, but because faith is the one human act which calls attention alone to God’s merit, honor and glory and his unswerving commitment to maintain that glory.

The Biblical Purpose of Faith

The cry of faith is found throughout the Psalms:

“Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name; and deliver us and forgive our sins, for thy name’s sake” (Psalm 79:9).
“For the sake of thy name, O Lord, revive me” (Psalm 143:11).
“For thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great” (Psalm 25:11).
“But thou, O Lord, deal kindly with me for thy name’s sake” (Psalm 109:21).
Paul spells out the essence of faith as the antithesis to merit when he says in Romans 4:4-5: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

And then Paul gives Abraham’s experience as the great pattern for all faith when he says, “With respect to the promise of God (the letters of the President and the philanthropist) Abraham did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Romans 4:20).” -John Piper

When he is right, he is right. 🙂

32 thoughts on “Is Faith Meritorious?

  1. Good article Eric. But unfortunately, I’m guessing that back then Piper did not believe a letter of pardon or wealth is given to everyone to present in faith to receive its benefits… and to those few it is given, in his view, they are irresistibly persuaded by being handed that letter, that Piper thinks they will be irresistibly believe it for them and then they will irresistibly present it to receive their pardon or wealth.

    I am guessing my guess it correct, even though I am not supposed to really understand Calvinism, having never been one. 😉

    1. brianwagner writes, “I’m guessing that back then Piper did not believe a letter of pardon or wealth is given to everyone to present in faith to receive its benefits… and to those few it is given,…I am guessing my guess it correct, even though I am not supposed to really understand Calvinism, having never been one.”

      If you understand Calvinism, then you know that it is faith that is given to the few. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me,…” To “come” is to believe and be saved. Paul added, “For by grace you have been saved through faith;…For we are God’s workmanship,…” Is that how you understand Calvinism?

      1. I think you understand, Roger, the depth of my understanding Calvinism and where I disagree with it and its twisting of Scripture that devalues God’s mercy and justice! 😉

  2. You can make same question for repentance (condional election?) – both are solemn obligations, and also inseparable graces, wrought in our souls by the quickening of the Holy Spirit. When we are convicted of our guilt, we humbly turn to God with unfeigned contrition, confession and supplication for His mercy; at the same time heartily receiving the Lord and openly confessing Him as our only and all-sufficient Savior.

  3. Wow Eric! Nice find!

    The president pardoned him, but he stays in jail unless he presents the letter.

    The president does NOT go take him out of jail. He has to believe the pardon and act on it.

    The rich man gives the poor man money, but the poor man has to present the paper to the lawyer.

    In no way can either of them say their faith produce the freedom and wealth…. but they still had to have it…. and it wasnt given to them.

    John Piper….. Arminian! Who knew!?

    1. You are speaking of giving a dead man a gift. The poor person and the prisoner are both alive and able to receive the gift. They are able to have faith that it is a bonafide offer. But what if the recipient is dead on arrival of the offer. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God and the wage of tat sin is DEATH. send a gift to a persons home and he can go to the mail box and receive the gift only if he is alive in the house. But if he is dead, thought the gift is offered he CANNOT receive it. The same is true for the spiritually dead man. He cannot do that which is spiritual as long as he remains spiritually dear. Regeneration is the sine qua non for faith. Faith is a spiritual activity that unregenerate man CANNOT perform. the reason faith is not meritorious is that it is a gift of God give by releasing the bondage of sin, (spiritual death) through regeneration. Ye MUST be born again in order to be saved by grace through faith.

      1. Mark:
        Thanks for joining.

        Everything you say has been discussed multiple times in these pages. You bring a lot to the text —-insisting on definitions that fit your position.

        Luke 15, Christ says (twice) the son is dead…..but still in a far away land, he comes to his senses. How can he? He was dead (Christ’s words) right? Must not mean what you think it means.

        Also, we are dead in Christ. Buried in Christ…. dead to sin….. But still manage to sin.

        Must not mean quite what Calvinists make it mean.

        Christ called out in a broad way to the many on the hillside….. Seek first the kingdom…. Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden.

        Over and over the idea from His lips is that people CAN come…. or not (Oh Jerusalem…. I wanted you to come….but you didnt).

        If the choice was completely His and He wanted it (in Calvinism) that means it has to happen….but they dont come. Why?

      2. FOH writes, “Luke 15, Christ says (twice) the son is dead…..but still in a far away land, he comes to his senses. How can he? He was dead (Christ’s words) right? Must not mean what you think it means.”

        The parable begins, “A certain man had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ And he divided his wealth between them.”

        Can you explain how that fits into the plan of salvation?

      3. Hi Mark,
        Your definition of what it means to be spiritually separated from God “spiritual death” is very Calvinist indeed but I don’t think it holds up to the scrutiny of scripture. Calvinism says that before you are born again you are like a corpse, often JMac uses an illustration of going to a cemetery he says if you preach to the graves no one will hear understand or respond to the preaching see there “that is man before he is born again”. So I am familiar with your understanding but lets look at some verses to see if the Bible actually supports this definition. Adam and Eve — already sinned – already separated from God’s fellowship – let’s see if they are really like a corpse in the cemetery: Do they hear God? Do they have the ability to interact with God? Do they know Good and Evil? or are they a corpse?
        Gen 3:9-11 But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me… Gen 3:22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.

        Now let’s look at Cain who is also separated from God he is spiritually dead but can he hear God, interact with God? Or is Cain a corpse in a grave?
        Gen 4:5-7 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Gen 4:8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Gen 4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Later we see v13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear… (Cain speaks to the Lord – Not very corpse like is he? )

        Now what does the New Testament say? Is this spiritually dead person able to know things about God? Has it been shown to him by God and has he seen and understood it? Can he Clearly see some things about God? Or is he a corpse that cannot see, hear or understand?
        Rom 1:18-20 For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For the unseen things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being realized by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, for them to be without excuse.
        Does a corpse have a conscience? Does a corpse have the law of God written on their hearts? Does corpses conscience accuse him? Or need to excuse him?
        Rom 2:14-15 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

        I don’t find the Calvinist definition of being “spiritually dead” to align with scripture.
        Consider this, death is best understood as separation we will start with “spiritual death” OT and NT: Isa 59:2 but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you.
        Eph 2:12  remember that you were at that time Separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 
        Eph 2:13  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 
        NOTICE the Words used in scripture to describe our condition: Separated, Alienated, Strangers, no Hope, Without God, Far off…
        This post is getting long so I will condense this a whole lot…
        Physical Death is Separation of the Soul/Spirit from the Body – Separation
        Spiritual Death is Separation of Man from God – Separation
        Second Death in Revalation is the Eternal Separation of Man from God –
        Once again Separation best describes all of these realities —
        I realize as a Calvinist you are taught to reject this concept but please read these scriptures with an open heart and there are many more. Take care

      4. Thanks GA,
        Thanks for taking the time to write that all out.

        To your post about the presupposition of Calvinist “dead” I would add 2 things:

        1. Unbelievers are not always called “dead”. Christ came to heal the “sick”. “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Can they be (Calvinist definition) dead and sick too? Nope.

        2. The dead word is used for believers too. Dead to sin. Buried with Christ. Does that mean “graveyard dead”? Of course not silly MacArthur….not a good analogy!

      5. FOH writes, “1. Unbelievers are not always called “dead”. Christ came to heal the “sick”….Can they be (Calvinist definition) dead and sick too? Nope.”

        Of curse, they can. Paul wrote, “you were dead in your trespasses and sins,” Whether “dead” or “sick,” the meaning is that unbelievers are not righteous. Thus, Paul, ““There is no-one righteous, not even one;”

        Then, “2. The dead word is used for believers too. Dead to sin. Buried with Christ. Does that mean “graveyard dead”?

        Paul writes, “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?…Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” But then, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”

      6. GraceAdict writes, ‘I don’t find the Calvinist definition of being “spiritually dead” to align with scripture.”

        Paul says in Ephesians 2, “you were dead in your trespasses and sins..” Paul then describes “being dead” this way: “you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”

        To be spiritually dead is to be unrighteous and to have no faith whereby one might run to God for salvation. In John 3, Jesus says that those the unbeliever cannot see or enter the kingdom of God. In Ephesians 4, Paul describes the unbelievers as walking, “in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.”

        You erroneously conclude, “I don’t find the Calvinist definition of being “spiritually dead” to align with scripture,” because you purposely seem to avoid the Calvinist explanation (as is common among non-Calvinists).

      7. GraceA,

        Don’t worry about it, this happens all the time.

        Calvinist answer us with non-Calvinist sounding verses. For example:

        Non-Calvinist: I think you Calvinist dont believe that Christ died for the whole world.

        Calvinist: Sure He did…. (here quote one of the many “whole world” verses).

        NC: You Calvinists say “dead” means incapable, but what about us being “dead” to sin.

        C: Yes that’s right, we are dead to sin (quote several “dead to sin” verses here).

        So….GA…. in the end nothing is said. Except A equals B and A does not equal B. “Dead” means what they want, when they want it….but not always. They decided that they get to set all rules of linguistic and biblical interpretation (of course based on the 40 filter verses, not the whole Bible).

      8. FOH writes, “They decided that they get to set all rules of linguistic and biblical interpretation (of course based on the 40 filter verses, not the whole Bible).”

        Calvinists just say that you have to deal with all the Scripture and not ignore the 40-50 verses cited by Calvinists that people like FOH pretend do not exist. For example, FOH will always say that there are thousands of verses that invite people to accept salvation. He will ignore the few verses that speak of the need for faith to respond and that faith comes by “hearing” the gospel (not just listening).

  4. DR4

    Quoted right out of a doctrine book by Preston Toliver (p. 55), and no doubt quoted by him from someone else.

    I believe that Piper’s illustration shows that there was no pre-quickening by the warden or the rich man. The salvation and wealth were there but had to be claimed in faith by the person.

    Just like we see with the greatest of pre-examples of the Cross, Passover. Salvation provided by God, with the condition that the blood be applied in faith.

  5. Let us also note that in neither case cited by Piper were either of the men “too dead” to act.

    All the mercy came from the president and the rich man…. but the receiver was surely able to respond in faith.

    It is fantastic when Piper keeps providing non-Calvinistic concepts in his writings…. proving the idea that one might “theologize” like Calvinism is true but we sure dont live, teach, and talk like it!

  6. Brian,

    Funny….. you said..

    “in his [Piper’s] view, they are irresistibly persuaded by being handed that letter…”

    Yes… for him that would have to be true….. but it’s not found in his story (or ever included in such stories!!).

    Think how ridiculous the story would sound if he added “the dead men were irresistibly persuaded that it was true.”

    Nah… that’s not a story! That’s a philosophy!

  7. Does anyone know if Piper was a Calvinist in 1976? No one of course is a Calvinist when they are saved because no one would come up with this philosophy on their own, they have to have is ingrained into them by other Calvinists so they can then go back read the Bible “correctly” with their Calvinist glasses on. Even Augustine, the originator of it, didn’t come up with this philosophy when he was first saved. He “discovered” it (along with many other wrong doctrines based on mis-reading of scripture) when he started his fight against Pelagius.
    Just wondering if he may have written this before he was a Calvinist.

    1. andyb,

      I remember John MacArthur’s pre-Calvinist days (he started at Bob Jones U!) ….. and of course Piper had them (and talks about them).

      I think this article is written in his already-Calvinist days…but it really doesn’t matter. He still leaves it up on his desiringgod web site (as if he still believes it). And yes….taken at face-value the article debunks what he theologizes about. But that is not a problem to him.

      He teaches determinism and writes books called “Dont Waste Your Life” (as if we could go one way or the other on “wasteful” actions).

      He teaches TULIP and the entire book by close associate Jon Bloom “Not By Sight” is all about the 35 examples of faith in the Word and how we need to follow them (some are saving faith—- so do it! he says).

      Yes, a very cake-and-eat-it-too situation where he stands with Anabaptist-drowning Calvin and Mary-worshiping Augustine (to show his bona fides) in a theological sense, but in a practical sense he teaches that faith is up to the person.

  8. Great article Eric!

    I like the prisoner analogy especially!

    If faith is a meritorious work – then Jesus is dishonoring the Father – when he commands the blind man to go wash his face.
    This man – by faith – obeys him – washes his face and is then healed.
    According to this definition – this man would have performed a work and thereby merited God’s act of healing by his own works.

    Would Jesus be involved in something that would dishonor the Father?

    All of Jesus’ healings would follow this model.

  9. Thanks for finding this Eric.

    Most Calvinist’s I know would probably agree that faith is not a meritorious act if asked.

    The problem is that that then turn around and say things that assume that faith is a meritorious act in salvation like “why did you believe and your friend didn’t, were you better or smarter or more righteous than they were” or “you believe man is the the ultimate decisive factor in his salvation” or “you believe man is sovereign over salvation” or “you believe God and man cooperate to achieve salvation” or “so you believe God does 95% of it and you did the other 5%”

    Piper’s article will be very useful in driving this point home, as they will have a hard time arguing with one of their own heroes.

    1. Great Points Andy — I have found the exact same thing…they play both sides of the court.
      One says Faith is a good Work BUT – it is given as the gift. That is why they can talk about faith as a good work that you must have but it is “gift faith” or a “gift work” that was given to you.
      Of course the passage they use to try and prove that point Eph 2 does not refer to faith being the gift since the” article” does not agree with the Feminine Noun of “Faith”. “It is a gift” cannot not refer to Faith. It is similar to saying “Jesus, died on the cross, she paid for our sins” — ” she” does not agree with “Jesus” – So “it” in the greek does not agree with the feminine noun “faith”.

      Andy keep posting…I enjoyed reading your post.

      1. GraceAdict writes, “One says Faith is a good Work BUT – it is given as the gift.”

        Faith is a work if the person is born with it and that inborn faith is excited to action by the gospel. Faith is a gift if a person is not born with faith but receives it through hearing the gospel. Without faith, no one accepts the gospel. with faith, all accept the gospel.

        Then, “Of course the passage they use to try and prove that point Eph 2 does not refer to faith being the gift since the” article” does not agree with the Feminine Noun of “Faith”.

        Because of the article, the gift is the entire process, “By grace through faith.” Both grace and faith are gifts. Thus, “we are God’s workmanship,”

  10. The Calvinist says that faith is a gift from God and is not meritorious. Eric describes a faith that appears to be inherent in the person, “First, picture yourself as a murderer condemned to death and awaiting execution…Then you get a letter from the President of the United States which says that he has, by his sovereign power, decided to remit your sentence and let you go free.” The faith exercised in this example is not a faith given to the person by God – thus, it is meritorious. Absent the person taking action, the letter is worthless. If the person must take action in order to apply the pardon, then that action is meritorious. The second example is the same – “The letter says that if you will bring it to his lawyer, the lawyer will pay you a hundred thousand dollars…” The action of bringing the letter to the lawyer is a meritorious work. Now if, the prisoner received the letter and immediately walked out of the prison or the poor person, on receiving the letter, immediately went on a spending spree then you have non-meritorious faith.

  11. I’ve heard Piper say many times that analogies are dangerous because they never cover everything and people tend to pick them apart for their apparent flaws. Regardless, he still uses analogies, as we all should, knowing that they are naturally going to be limited in their explanatory power. Thus, I would assume as best I could in good faith that Piper’s two analogies here were intended to merely cover what they covered (namely, whether one could say that their faith was a work or a grace), and that to assume because the analogy didn’t cover all other things under the sun (such as effectual regeneration, etc.), that the analogies thus should be taken to prove a point inconsistent with the speaker. Even our Lord’s analogies and parables didn’t cover all possible topics, taken individually. Just as we don’t interpret God’s whole intended meaning on a topic by only looking at one scripture or a group of scriptures that only say the same thing, it would be less than charitable to engage in such a myopic views when evaluating each others’ doctrine. Just as we should consider the ‘whole counsel’ of God, let’s look at the ‘whole counsel’ of teachers in each camp on these issues.

    1. anduinsuchan,

      Thanks for joining in.

      Please tell me where “effectual regeneration” is covered in the Bible.

      Recently I read the story of the Rich Young Man in my devotions. It says that Christ loved him, and we clearly see Christ call him! He was loved and called and yet resisted Christ’s offered grace. Was that an “ineffectual call”?

  12. Great Article… Love it when Piper gets it right. I have learned a lot from Piper but also have had to throw out a lot of garbage from Piper. Now I think as Piper gets older he is getting more and more radical in his thinking…Making God the author of evil through what he teaches but then saying he is not the author of evil at the end just to cover his bad theology. But am sooo glad for him when he gets it right.

    1. GraceAddict writes, “as Piper gets older he is getting more and more radical in his thinking…Making God the author of evil through what he teaches but then saying he is not the author of evil at the end just to cover his bad theology.”

      God is the cause of all things, good and evil as He has the power to stop any evil and produce any good. No person commits any evil without God knowing it ahead of time and deciding, ahead of time, that such evil should occur. There is no evil act that takes place without God being present and able to stop the evil act but not doing so ,having decided in eternity past that such evil should proceed. By His creative act in Genesis 1, God became the author of all that was to happen.

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